Joshua Sutherland Allen

Joshua Sutherland Allen

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Why I Hate Working on Christmas Music

This is the season that I dread,
When autumn chills turn leafy forests red.
Visions of winter concerts fill my head,
And haunt my dreams at night in bed.

My choir sets serious scores and texts aside,
And turns to drab banalities of Christmastide.
The great majestic works in which we pride,
We put away and practice on “Sleigh Ride.”

The Tallis is already good to go,
The Bach will be within a week or so –
Music that helps my students learn and grow –
But now it’s time to work on “Let It Snow.” 

When I must hear or sing of silver bells,
I think that it must be my funeral knell,
And when kids’ voices with “White Christmas” swell,
I know that I am in musicians’ hell.

We could, of course, work only on the lays,
Chorales, and carols of the great feast day,
The works of Palestrina or Fauré:
These might my musical chagrin allay.

But then, the truth that I must now admit,
Is that my students like the Christmas hits –
The very ones that I think are base shit –
And though their attitude does not acquit

Vapidity of musicality,
I must remind myself that I can see
Their point – that silly as a song may be,
Value is not only in profundity.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Supermoon Eclipse

A strange ritual we enact, my wife and I,
A rite not to be repeated for eighteen years,
And not having been done
Since the early days of our lives
In 1982, to be precise:
Driving around the countryside,
Looking, and praying,
If praying is the right word,
For clouds to dissolve and disappear
So we can watch the moon disappear,
Turned red and eaten away
By our own shadow,
Projected two hundred and fifty thousand miles
Through vacuous space and Van Allen belts
To swallow the reflected lunar light
In its darkness.

The clouds that cover the moon
Disperse in time for us to see
The moon re-covered by our own earthly image.
We watch it a while,
And then drive home,

Through streets crowded with fellow watchers –
Neighbors who never have known each other
Until this night,
When a shadow draws us together.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Parent-Teacher Conferences

A clock clicking wasted seconds,
An empty room with polished floor
And textbooks put away,
Whiteboards cleaned.

Sounds of volleyball match next door,
Music rooms perched above the gym,
Balls bouncing, girls shouting,

Sitting and grading in silence
Papers written with wasted ink –
Formal writing couched in
Text-speak, slang.

Six o’clock and no one coming,
No crowds are cheering in this room;
Family at home eating
Without me.

A classroom waiting silently,
With gradebook and standards on hand
To talk about student

But no one comes tonight except
For those I do not need to see.
Those whose kids are struggling
Are not here.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Lacie, Our Cavalier King Charles Spaniel

Our dog, Lacie, died this past week.  Lacie and my wife, Traci, were best friends.  I used to joke that Lacie is the only one in the world that Traci loves more than she love me.  I wrote this poem in memory of Lacie, imagining what she might say to Traci now.

Here where I am,
Beneath the cedars and the hickories,
The pink and flowered dogwood by the way,
Beside the path that you have raked,
The bench you set,

You can just see
Across the hills, the pasture with the cows
Where I once went to call, that autumn day
I ran away, chasing some birds.
You looked for me,

And found me there,
Away and visiting the cows, my friends,
As I would call them.  I could make new friends
Anywhere, a standard, they say
Of my pure breed.

I loved it here,
In this cool forest, rabbits all around,
With leaves to chase, and shades in which to lie;
The bright butterflies I’d follow
And be happy.

I loved you too,
My dearest friend, and still love you.  You saved me
From misery and gave me warmth and comfort.
But best of all, you knew my soul,
And I knew yours.

Did you notice –
I’m sure you did – the way I cared for you
When you and he came home from hospital,
Your baby gone, your womb empty?
Sitting with you,

Licking your face,
I never left your side, you needed me,
The way I needed you in my last days,
When you, in return, stayed with me,
Stroking my fur

As my heart failed.
A heart too full of love to beat forever,
Not slowed so much by heart murmurs as by
The deep compassion held for you,
My constant love.

And I can say
Now that I’ve entered the mystic beyond:
The love you have shown me, and I’ve shown you,
I now give to your little child.
She’s here with me,

So do not fear.
The two of us – both she and I – together
Know you and pray for you always.  So visit
This lovely spot you made for me,
This arbor grave,

And speak to me,
And we will hear, and somehow be together
Where hickory and cedar trees give cover.
The love we had will never end,
My dearest friend.

Sunday, September 13, 2015


Footsteps are echoing down deserted halls:
A school on Sunday – students and teachers
Away, at home, forgetting fears and bothers,
Preparing for the week to come.  The sounds
Of steps from solitary visitor
Resound down quiet corridor, and tell
Just how alone I am.  Each sound made stronger
And still more resonant by empty space
And empty tile.  It seems not right, and yet
It also seems not wrong, somehow, or rather
It feels somehow that this is where I’m meant
To be, in this abandoned, darkened place.
With no one here, I am alone, with just
Myself, my work, and God perhaps for dismal
Company.  I don’t fear the dark, the space,
Or even being alone, and yet the sound
Of my own steps clacking, shuffling down
The hollow halls does chill me in some way.

It is as being at home, when one
You love is not around, away
On some small errand, or on some
Extended journey out of town,
Or even gone for good.  The sounds
Of daily, domestic habits,
Opening, closing doors, taking
Weekly garbage bins to the curb,
Washing dishes, bathing, splashing
In water run from rusty pipes:
Each isolated sound resounds
Through empty rooms, and empty mind.

It is also,
The emptiness
Of brains and hearts
Defeated and
From their routines:
Minds that are tired –
Those that cannot
Process more work,
Problem solving,
Good hearts that break
From too much love,
That give themselves
To ones who don’t
Understand, and
Beating slowly
Fade as their blood
Cannot be pumped
Or carry its
Load – oxygen and love –
To its members.


Friday, September 11, 2015

On Writing Bad Poetry

I. Choosing a Meter

Dactyls are second to none in the way that they bear elegiacs,
Mournful, sad songs of the ancients of Greek and of Roman antiquity,
How they can carry the lofty, bold lays of Homeric and Hesiod hymns,
Telling of Muses who sing for departed, old heroes of legend:
Long-haired Achaeans, swift-footed Achilles, and breakers of horses.
And yet, for Milton, Shakespeare, and for Donne,               
The iamb is the mode of choice, its soft
And soothing, restful cadence flowing smoothly
Across an English or provincial tongue.

Trochees rarely make good verses –
Dies irae, the exception
Poe’s stark Raven uses trochees,
As it beats your brain to pieces.
Hiawatha is the same, its
Silly rhythms tear asunder
Any beauty in its text.

Nature haiku are
Sometimes quite lovely, and yet
Rarely have much depth.        

The limerick is always such fun,
And sometimes they make use of puns,
But they’re always so base,
And lacking in grace,
That I want to be shot with a gun.

If you want,
You can sing a song of yourself,
           Your varied carols raise.
And sound of Whitman and his barbaric yawp
           Raising your voice and strain in lyric free verse.

Or if you are of hymnic mind,
This meter could help you,
Eight syllables in the first line
And six more in line two:

The standard meter of the fold
And of its hymns divine.
“Amazing Grace!” fits in this mold,
And also “Auld Lang Syne.”

e e cummings is an excellent model for
all aspiring poets out there except
for the fact that you must                  
be brilliant to be
able to pull this off
or else it just
and sounds
like rubbish

II.  To Rhyme, or Not to Rhyme

So now that we have settled on a time
And meter for our stanzas and our words,
We turn our thoughts to whether we should rhyme.

The terza rima lets us rhyme in thirds,
Dante its advocate both strong and true,
A favorite for those smart poetic nerds.

When I have fears sonnets may cease to be,
Before our pens have gleaned all use from them,
That Keats and Wordsworth we’ll no longer see,
That English textbooks will not teach this gem,
Nor students come to know Donne’s battered heart
Or Shakespeare’s mistress, lovely, temperate, fair,
The beauteous depth of Blake’s and Dunbar’s art,
Or learn how Browning loved with grace and care,
That teachers will not teach the flowing verse
Nor poets write the rich, fourteen-lined form,                         
Which for long centuries was our common purse
Of literary wealth – poetic norm:
Then will I weep and mourn for my dear tongue,
The English lingua franca that I love,
Assume that it’s become a heap of dung
And push it off with one disgusted shove.

And yet, so many of the greats have made
Blank verse their staple and foundation sound.                        
Like Robert Frost in “Mending Wall,” and “Birches” too,
And some of Ezra Pound’s succinct, brief works.

The couplet is a nice poetic twist,
As friendly as a friendly game of whist.

It always works just as it should,
So it’s been used by poets not so good.

Many a bad poet in couplets writes
Rotten poetry that really bites.

This form contains so much gross muck,
That we may rightly say, couplets suck.

(If evidence is needed, then please see
Joyce Kilmer’s verse about a tree.)

Of course, you could create your own rhyme scheme,
It’s easy as a meme, but never think to deflate
The power of your words to satisfy a rhyme –
Life is short, there is no time, you turds.

III.  Internal Sounds

Poetry is, at heart, a spoken word,
A sound from the heart
Passing briefly the tongue
And vocal chords and flying
Through air to the ear
And from there to the brain.
Therefore take care for how you sound,
And not just how your words array
A page in a book, or on a blog,
But how they seize the ear
Of those who listen,
And those who cannot help but listen.

Onomatopoeia is a sizzling hot way
To add a little pop to your sound.
But never overuse the little bams and crashes,
The punching power of sounding words,
Unless you want to bring your poem
Banging down and grinding to a halt.

Alliteration is the poet’s persistent problem,
Patterns of sound
Given pride of place in poetry and prose,
Pretty, playful, pleasing, perhaps,
Yet also with the penchant to be
Persnickety, peevish, petulant,
And perhaps painfully pedantic.

IV.  Foreign Words

For some it is almost de rigueur
To add a French, Greek, or German word or two
Into an English language work.
Of course this adds a certain je ne sais quoi,                          
A sense the author is un citoyen du monde,
A member of the οἶκος and πόλις that is our world,
Ein Mensch und ein Bürger der Welt.
If you do this, ich grolle nicht, and yet
I know that you are merely writing
Because you need the world to know
How smart you are.
It is the writer’s and the scholar’s hell
(Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate)
For their intelligence to go unremarked.
But as for me, I'll say no more:
βοῦς ἐπὶ γλώσσῃ μέγας.

V. Pulling It All Together

So now, we have decided on a form,
Pentameter, iambic, rhyme and verse
Our thoughts can now to pen and paper swarm,
And we may write however grand or terse.

There can be nothing left to do, correct?
We have the perfect sounding, polished phrases.
Just print the damn thing now, and so direct
Your agent to find royalties and raises.

One thing alone is missing from this stuff,
I hesitate to mention it at all,
Your poem is just now grand-standing fluff,
We never chose a theme on which to call.                           

What is the poem about? I hear you ask –
We spent such time discussing rhyme and sound,
We never talked about the crucial task
Of choosing content – themes were never found.

A lovely song of nothing we have here,
Concise and sounding beautifully deep,
But vapid as a day spent drunk on beer,
Good only to be tossed on rubbish heap. 

But do not fear, my loyal, friendly bards,
A truth I tell to you, so listen well,
Great works may be stylistically unmarred,
But deep within no hidden truths they tell.

Some of the greatest poets of our age –
Great emblems of tenacity and grit –
Write poems full of lyric grace or rage,
But deep within, they are just piles of shit.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Bound to Love

This poem came to be as I was experimenting with the Petrarchan sonnet form:

Syrian migrants harshly turned away,
Kentucky clerk jailed for contempt of court,
Illegal immigrants urged to deport,
And workers can be fired for being gay.
The preachers gripe about moral decay,
While candidates denounce those who abort,
And ridicule the poor as if it’s sport,
And say, “If only kids in school could pray.”
Devout I used to be, a foolish youth,
A child of God with passionate belief.
But faith, the manufacturer of grief,
Compels disciples to meanness and hate.
So wiser now am I, and done with truth,
But bound to love, the highest human trait.